Michelle Paver is an international bestselling author with over 3 million copies of her books sold across the globe. She was born in Malawi and came to England as a child before studying Biochemistry at Oxford University. She went on to become a partner in a City of London law firm before turning to writing after her father's death.
Michelle is best known for her prize-winning, million-copy-selling Wolf Brother series for children, and for her painstaking and meticulous method-approach to researching her novels, with treks to Siberia and the Arctic North, exploration of ice caves, swims with killer whales and meals of whale meat and roseroot regular fare.
Skin Taker (Zephyr)
Skin Taker, the eighth stunning book in the Wolf Brother series, takes us back to the Stone Age and to an explosive event that sets off a dramatic new adventure for Torak, Renn and Wolf.
Michelle Paver tells us about Skin Taker and her Wolf Brother series in this Q&A:
1. For those who don't know the series, where and when are the Wolf Brother books set?
The WOLF BROTHER books are set 6,000 years ago in the Stone Age: that's after the Ice Age, but before farming spread to northern Scandinavia. And Scandinavia is where the stories take place, mostly in the vast Forest which at that time covered the whole of northern Europe. (Although I've changed mountains and rivers to suit the stories; and I've found that readers all over the world tend to site the stories in the forests of their own countries - which is something I really like.)
As this is the Stone Age, my hero and heroine, Torak and Renn, are hunter-gatherers. They don't have writing, metals or the wheel - but they don't need them, they're superb survivors. They know all about the animals, plants, trees and rocks around them, and they respect them, because they depend on them for their very existence.
Over the years I've found that this self-sufficiency and respect for the natural world has resonated strongly with readers of all ages. And of course it also helps that parts of the story are told from Wolf's point of view: through his eyes and ears and nose!
2. Can you tell us about your new book, Skin Taker?
It's midwinter, the Dark Time, and a meteorite devastates the Forest. Torak's world is plunged into chaos: bears wake from hibernation and prowl the charred valleys, and only demons thrive. As the clans struggle to survive, they face a stark choice: do they turn on each other, or pull together? As for Torak and Renn, their whole world is in turmoil - and it's up to them to save it....
I first got the idea for a disaster striking the Forest five years ago, and I was interested in exploring the effect of a worldwide disaster on Torak's people. I had no idea that by the time I finished SKIN TAKER, my own world would be battling the threat of Covid-19.
3. In Skin Taker, we learn more about how Renn and Torak's pasts have affected them. While your books are stand-alone adventures, is this what you wanted to explore in this trilogy within the Wolf Brother books?
Not really, my aim was simply to write three more immersive, exciting adventures featuring Torak, Renn and Wolf. But having said that, once I'd had the central idea for the three books, I soon realized that the adventures which the characters had had in the past would have left their mark on them in all sorts of ways, and that exploring this would make the stories even more involving.
For instance, in the first book, WOLF BROTHER, Torak's father is killed by a bear - and since then, Torak has never had the chance to deal with how he feels about bears. That's something which arises naturally in Skin Taker, when the meteorite wakes bears from their winter sleep - and it has greatly enriched the story. But as you say, Skin Taker is still a standalone story, just like all the others. I wrote it to appeal both to existing fans and to new readers.
4. What can we expect in the next book, Wolfbane?
Wolfbane begins in the treacherous days of early spring, when storms batter the coast and frozen rivers are fighting to be free. Wolf finds himself adrift at Sea, and hunted by an ice demon who is bent on killing him and eating his souls. Somehow, Torak and Renn must find their pack-brother before the demon can attack...
This is the final book in the Wolf Brother series, and after the cosmic goings-on in Skin Taker, the focus is very much on Torak, Renn and Wolf. It brings their story to what I hope readers will feel is a dramatic and satisfying conclusion.
5. Where do you write and how do you plan your books, especially when there's a series, and do you use notebooks, with maps, sketches, photographs, mood boards etc?
I write in my study at home (I don't have much choice during a pandemic!), and before I start writing, I do months of planning and research. I write stacks of notes; I have 12 lever-arch files on everything from the lives of the different clans, animals, trees, and of course the characters.
As for maps, I do sketchy ones to help me keep track of Torak and his friends, and sometimes I'll sketch a bit of landscape for a given episode. But I never use mood boards (I've only a vague idea of what they are), and I rarely look at photos, and only take them during research trips for use by my publicist. I think this is because the sense of sight is only a small part of experience.
To make readers feel that they're living the adventure alongside Torak, Renn and Wolf, I like to evoke smells, sounds and feelings as well as what things look like. That's why I find my notes far more useful than photographs.
6. As a writer you are known to immerse yourself in the area or subject you are drawing on for your new story. Did you make any trips for Skin Taker, and were there specific subjects you needed to research?
Although I already have lots of notes, I really do find that research still helps give me ideas. To limit my carbon footprint I've done just two big trips for all three books, and my 2016 trip to Alaska and Haida Gwaii in British Columbia gave me lots of inspiration for Skin Taker. For instance, I explored a grizzly bear's den (it was unoccupied at the time), and got ideas for shamanic rites and bear-clawed gauntlets from the First Nations of British Columbia.
Closer to home, I explored what it's like to be lost underground by spending a day 200 feet down, in some caves in the Forest of Dean. And to re-acquaint myself with the Dark Time, I visited Kirkenes in the far north of Norway in January 2020, where I saw a meteor shoot across the northern lights (Torak's people call them the First Tree).
I have to say, though, that after the past year, during which I haven't left Wimbledon, all this travel feels as if it happened to someone else!
7. How does your research feed into your stories, perhaps not just with writing the descriptions but inspiring ideas and characters, too?
The main point of doing the research isn't to write slavish descriptions, I do it to get ideas for the stories; and when I'm on a trip, I'm always thinking about how my characters will experience things.
For instance in Alaska a young Inupiaq man told me about making a bear trap from a coiled strip of baleen (whalebone). That's something my villain uses in SKIN TAKER to lethal effect. More benignly, the folklore of the British Columbian First Nations gave me the basis for a beautiful story which Fin-Kedinn the Raven Leader uses to encourage the clans and bring them together. It tells how people and animals survived a great flood by working together to build a raft. That's what I love about research: when I find something unexpected, that will be perfect for my story.
I should also add that only a very small fraction of all my research ever finds its way into my stories. I don't believe in "getting stuff in", as that's fatal to readability. Just like its predecessors, Skin Taker is first and foremost an adventure. I use the research purely to make the story come alive.
8. Was your writing affected by lockdown and the pandemic?
I didn't think I would be that affected, as I live alone and I've been working at home for 20 years - but I was wrong. I've found this past year quite stressful, and it's been hard to concentrate at times.
Partly this is because my mother is 90 years old and very frail, and since the pandemic hit, she has, very sensibly, been paying her cleaner to stay away - so my sister and I have been doing her shopping, housework and gardening.
The other reason is that I've found the news a bit inimical to concentration. However, climbing the odd tree on Wimbledon Common has helped a bit; as has being present in the recording studio (virtually, of course) for three days while Ian McKellen read Skin Taker for the audiobook.
9. Where are you looking forward to travelling to most after lockdown?
I would love to visit the Faroes, and also Scoresbysund in east Greenland, which I understand is the biggest fjord in the world. Sadly, though, this pandemic still has a way to go yet, so I don't think I'll be going anywhere for quite some time.
10. Do you have ideas for further series or Wolf Brother books?
I'm pretty sure that there will be no more Wolf Brother books, and that Wolfbane will be the ninth and final book in the series. As for future books, I do have a few ideas - but they're still simmering on the back burner!
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